Howard Hughes Would Be Proud

There is something on Capitol Hill that is almost as important as daily briefings, polls and wireless Blackberries. It sits in senators’ leather briefcases, unassuming. Members of Congress keep it close on their desks, next to pictures of their wives. And press secretaries pass it around to colleagues in meetings, along with copies of the morning paper.

No matter what, it ends up on the fingers and in the palms of almost every person with a Capitol ID card, once, twice and sometimes even a dozen times a day.

In this city of glad-handing, back-patting and power-lunching, hand sanitizer has been a godsend in a bottle to those with a job description that includes “schmoozer.” And now, as colds and germs filter through the offices as fast as the latest Beltway gossip, there is hardly a soul who will go half an hour without a pump-full of the stuff.

“Would you like some?” Sen. Mel Martinez asked one recent afternoon, as he rubbed Germ-X on his hands and passed the hand sanitizer to his communications director, Kerry Feehery, and two visitors.

Martinez, a Florida Republican, had just shaken the hands of three constituents. And as he sat down for his next meeting, he took his bottle out of his briefcase and talked about his personal experiences with the anti-bacterial liquid.

“The president uses it religiously,” Martinez said. “And I learned from him.”

He continued to rub his hands as the smell of alcohol permeated his office. Fifteen seconds later, his hands were 99.9 percent clean, as the bottle stated.

“I really believe in it,” he said.

Legislators are huge hand-sanitizing fans, even though some pretend to have never touched a bottle, afraid of appearing like a hypochondriac.

“It’s fabulous,” said Rep. Mark Foley, R-Fla., who has a bottle of Purell on his desk and one in his car. “I try to always have clean hands, like my mother taught me, and a little dab will do you.”

On a normal day, lawmakers shake hundreds of hands: fellow legislators, visiting mayors, schoolchildren, lobbyists, reporters, walk-ins, hallway passers-by, tourists and even the nice ladies who serve lunch in the members-only dining room. And on a good day, one cannot walk the corridors of power without hearing a sneeze, a raspy cough or seeing a red-eyed, tissue-carting legislative aid. But who has time for plain old soap and water anymore? That’s so yesterday, so George H.W. Bush.

This year, even the Office of the Attending Physician in the House of Representatives office buildings launched a “cough and cover” campaign after some lawmakers came in sniffling and coughing. The physician posted a large sign outside the office that offers four recommendations, including “waterless, alcohol based hand sanitizers.”

“Purell is everywhere,” Foley added, “because Washington is a cesspool for germs. In this business, everyone wants to shake your hand.”

On a recent morning, before munching on some pretzels, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., reached for a bottle quicker than you can say, “germaphobic.”

“Germs cross party lines,” he quipped. “You better believe I use it.”

Martinez said he shakes at least 50 hands a day and almost every member of his staff has been sick at least once since he took office last month. Sometimes, he said, when he’s in and out of meetings, he just doesn’t have the time to wash his hands. So, he carts his bottle of Germ-X to Senate hearings, restaurants, and on trips to Florida.

“I lived on this during the campaign and I still live on it,” he said, sounding like a spokesman for anti-bacterial liquid. “And I’ve learned that when you become a hard-hitting user as I have, you need some with moisturizer.”

(Reach Amie Parnes at parnesa(at)